Zucchini, a summer squash, is native to the Americas (as is winter squash). Zucchini belongs to the family Cucurbita, along with cucumbers and melons. Dating back from 7,000 to 5,500 b.c., this Mexican native was an integral part of the ancient diet of maize, beans and squash. That pre-Columbian food trio is still the mainstay of Mexican cuisine and is known as the "three sisters."
Explorers who came to the Americas brought back what they thought were many strange foods. Zucchini was one of them. It eventually found its way to Italy where it was called "zuccino"; soon after, the French called it "courgette" and the British called a slightly plumper variety "marrow." The word "squash" comes from the Algonquin word askutasquash, which means something that is eaten green, in an unripe state. This warm weather crop needs full sun; plant seeds in mounds of soil 3 to 4 feet apart, or plant them in rows every 4 to 8 inches that are 3 to 4 feet apart. A steady water supply and soil rich in organic matter will keep fruit producing. Harvest when young and tender. There are many different shapes, sizes and colors; days to maturity range from 40 to 55 days.
4 small zucchini (1 pound total)
1/3 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup pine nuts (1 oz)
Thinly slice and reserve tips of 2 zucchini blossoms and 4 fresh mint sprigs for garnish.
Cut zucchini diagonally into paper-thin slices. Arrange slices, overlapping slightly, in 1 layer on 4 plates.
Make stacks of mint leaves and cut crosswise into very thin slivers, then sprinkle over zucchini.
Whisk together oil and lemon juice in a small bowl, then drizzle over zucchini. Sprinkle with sea salt, pepper to taste, and pine nuts. Let stand 10 minutes to soften zucchini and allow flavors to develop.
Just before serving, use a vegetable peeler to shave cheese to taste over zucchini, then sprinkle with zucchini blossoms and mint.
Makes 4 first-course servings.